Kiril is laconic. He never elaborates, digresses or embellishes. Words linger awkwardly in the air, suspended in silence, mingling with particulates, before he finally responds to them. He is not unfriendly or socially inept; he is just startlingly uncommunicative. Words are either tools to get a job done (pass the spanner) or units of information to convey a message (your knotweed is invading my land). He does not dabble in abstraction or tittle-tattle. He likes drinking beer, riding his motorbike, making/fixing things. On the rare occasion he comes to his summerhouse (for a day or two), it is to cut the grass, trim bushes, make/fix things. Now and then he invites me to join him for a beer around an open fire in his garden: we say a few words but mostly we stare at the flames. Last year he took a sabbatical from his job as a photographer (for an online magazine) to enlist in the Lithuanian army as a volunteer. “Why?” I asked him incredulously. “I have always wanted to be a soldier,” he said. I wished him luck and shook his hand, carefully exerting the right amount of firm friendliness and manly pressure. Kiril is a good neighbour (considerate, absent, etc.), but the main reason I like him – in a nutshell – is that his name rhymes with ‘squirrel’.
Squirrels are among my favourite creatures: they would definitely get a berth on my arc (everything would except mosquitoes, fleas and 89% of humanity). Their agility is extraordinary, their intelligence is axiomatic. The squirrel thinks: “Where there is food, there is a way.” Their outrageous cuteness and audacious acrobatics exempt them from being mere pests or rodents (and greatly enhances their chance of survival). Squirrels also exhibit something resembling joy when they eat (I have seen them close their almond eyes as if savouring the nut clasped in their paws). I also strongly identify with their instinct to hoard food. Squirrels bury some 10,000 nuts a year in multiple caches (they may rebury a cache up to five times until they feel it is safe). As an inveterate hoarder (discounted coffee, alcohol, unwatched films), I admire the squirrel’s prudent stockpiling for lean times. The only problem I have with this delightful animal is its name: I can’t pronounce the damned thing.
My mouth feels more comfortable with the Lithuanian voverė, from which the lovely voveraitė is formed, meaning Chanterelle, evocatively defined by the OED as: “An edible woodland mushroom with a yellow funnel-shaped cap and a faint smell of apricots.” In the summer J and I go mushrooming in a nearby forest, scouring the mossy, mottled forest floor for a glint of yellow. It is an intense and dizzying experience (sometimes exacerbated by a hangover). It feels like I am stalking more than mushrooms as I clamber, panting and sweating, around the steep hillside. I am stalking a delicate hope (camouflaged by undergrowth, randomly dispersed, fleetingly extant). The elusive Chanterelle is Moby Dick, a whale I want to impale with my harpoon. It is Dulcinea, sprouting among the pines, refusing to be mine.
A dream (always the same painfully wistful dream): I meet a young woman, a compound of every women I’ve known. She is singularly attractive: her face (sad, intelligent, sensual) holds the promise of love. We are in a generic European city. Nice quoin, charming quad. Now we are in a park, by a river, wandering aimlessly. Now we are disintegrating in a bar. I toss and turn as it invariably goes wrong. It is not a question of difference but of tragically misaligned time. The night grows old, the opportunity passes, time (and age) pulls us apart. Grief is my alarm clock: it wakes me up.
I see that woman every day: in waitresses, cashiers, on bridges, at traffic lights, strolling in parks, promenading by the river. A fleeting look, another receding hope. A glimmer of yellow, a mushroom that I cook (in sour cream). I don’t even really like Chanterelles (compared to boletuses, Portobellos, and Shiitakes). I hunt glimmers of yellow and flashes of amber because there is no hope of finding what I really want. We have to put our passion somewhere; mine goes into foraging for fungi and scavenging for crumbs of fossilized resin. Love no longer grows in my decaying, shrinking habitat; those who would love me are desperate, deranged or misguided.
I find the Lithuanian passion for mushrooming touching and reassuring. Lithuanians do it to spend time in nature, get some gentle exercise, have a delicious meal at the end of it all. Me, I am on the trail of a tale that spawns spores to throw me off the spoor of whatever the hell it is I’m really looking for.
A prodigiously gifted 10-year-old boy I know casually refers to President Dalia Grybauskaitė as “the mushroom lady” (grybas – mushroom). I don’t follow Lithuanian politics (it’s too painful) but I like Grybauskaitė for two reasons. The first is that she is good for the country (going by what J has told me); she is principled, independent, and intelligent (though I wish she would tone down the anti-Russian rhetoric). The other reason I like her is that she goes mushrooming. Grybauskaitė (or her PR team) once posted a picture of Chanterelles on her Facebook page that she had picked earlier in the day. It is rather heartening to know that the president goes mushrooming as a way of relaxing (one can only guess at what those funnel-shaped mushrooms subconsciously symbolize for her).
A former speaker of the Lithuanian parliament called Grybauskaitė a “boba”. A derogatory term, it is used to insult older women: it is old bat, fusspot, biddy and crone rolled into one. It is a verbal glob of disdain dripping with misogyny (Grybauskaitė was understandably furious with the clown of a man who said it). Inasmuch as I hoard and squirrel away (tobacco, notepads, onions) for a rainy day, I am something of a boba myself. Like a nervy old woman, my net curtains twitch as I peek out at the worsening state of the world (more expensive, less safe). If I hear the price of sugar or olive oil is going up I rush to the store to stockpile as much as I can carry. My apartment belonged to an archetypal boba (I kept her ancient-looking wooden sewing contraption, spools and all). No wonder I feel so at home in my apartment; her saturated fat-buoyed spirit is bobbing away on a crest of sighs and smoke.
“Again! Say it again!”
My inability to say “squirrel” is a running joke.
Everything is normal, in order, under control. There is Kiril, on furlough, cutting the grass. There is J swiping away on her phone. There is M cracking open a beer. There is G twiddling with her mole. There is a Russian soul, in a new and very advanced tank, misunderstood and abiding by all international norms, as it invades on a wave of crude propaganda, brutally disregarding the Geneva Convention of Semantic Rights, redrawing reality, along with the British and Americans, allies again! Left is right, right is left, down is up, up is down, speakers of parliaments are clowns, frowns are upside down smiles, cyber-caves are papyri for primal pictograms. Anything goes because no one knows what is what. We have reached Peak Reality. Choose the reality that feels rightest. Conspiracies abound. We need boots on the ground. To fight it out with the bots. The WHAT? It is the saddest, stupidest conflict ever fought. Jesus himself wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise. It’s a psychosomatic Somme out there. Everyone is standing their ground. Whose undulating terrain is an extension of themselves. Which is a besieged cluster of grasping, groping cells. Which are a breakaway faction of a primordial broth. A concoction cooked up by a mad and lonely god who was at war with nothing. Because even nothing has to live off something.